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What You Need to Know About Parvovirus in Dogs

Insurance Ranked - Updated January 9, 2023
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What You Need to Know About Parvovirus in Dogs

Parvovirus a nightmare scenario for you and your new puppy. It can cause an active, healthy dog to become critically ill -- especially if they are young pups or seniors and don't have strong immune systems.

Parvo is extremely common, so it's important for dog owners to know the dangers of parvo and how to deal with it, such as the symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

What It Is

Parvo (also referred to as CPV-2 by veterinarians) is an extremely contagious virus that replicates quickly and causes gastrointestinal issues (by destroying cells, disrupting the gut barrier, impairing absorption, and damaging the stomach and small intestine), affects the lymph nodes, bone marrow, bloodstream, and -- in rare cases -- myocarditis (inflammation of the heart); it can be fatal if not treated quickly.

While dogs of all ages can contract it, those most at risk are unvaccinated dogs and puppies between six weeks and six months old. Before six weeks, puppies have antibodies from their mother but will need vaccinations to keep their immune systems healthy as they age. Older dogs who have not been vaccinated may also be affected if exposed to parvovirus.

Certain breeds are also more prone to contracting parvo, such as:

  • American Staffordshire Terriers
  • Doberman Pinschers
  • English Springer Spaniels
  • German Shephard
  • Rottweilers

Parvovirus was first documented in dogs in Europe around 1976 and spread worldwide two years later. In addition to domesticated dogs, it can also affect canines such as coyotes and wolves.

Causes

One of the reasons parvovirus is so dangerous is due to the ease at which it is spread: through direct or indirect contact with an infected dog, feces, or a contaminated object (food or water bowl, toys, collar, leash, bedding, crate, clothing, etc) sniffed, licked, or consumed by a puppy.

Dogs who are infected can begin spreading the virus 4 or 5 after exposure (even before they show symptoms) and as long as 10 days after recovery. This leaves a huge window of time in which it can spread to other vulnerable dogs.

Other factors -- such as a different illness, exhaustion, stress, or weaning -- can lead to a much more severe case of parvo in dogs.

Parvovirus is an extremely difficult virus to get rid of: it's resistant to heat, cold, humidity, drying, and even some common cleaners and disinfectants and survives for months or years if kept from direct sunlight. Any areas that have come into contact with parvo should be cleaned with household bleach.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of parvovirus are:

  • Severe diarrhea
  • Bloody stool
  • Lethargy
  • Fever or hypothermia
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Depression
  • Dehydration, which can cause damage to the intestines, immune system, and septic shock

If you see any of these signs in your dog, contact your veterinarian immediately; leaving parvo untreated after the onset of the initial symptoms can result in death within 2 to 3 days. Even if it's not parvo, there could be another serious illness that needs to be treated. Before you go, notify your veterinarian and staff that your puppy might have parvovirus so they can take the proper precautions to protect other dogs.

Diagnosis

Parvovirus diagnosis is based on lab tests, physical examination, and the dog's prior history. Tests that may be done include blood count evaluation, fecal testing, PCR, or ELISA. Your vet may do more than one test to determine whether your dog has parvo.

Tests may show a reduced white blood cell count since parvo infections hinder the bone marrow's ability to produce white blood cells, making it difficult for your puppy to fight off the infection.

Treatment

There currently aren't any drugs that can get rid of parvovirus, so treatment to support your dog's immune system is your best bet to fight off the infection. Sadly, there is no guarantee for your puppy's survival, but with quick and effective treatment, they have a fighting chance.

Treatment for parvo includes keeping your dog warm; administering the proper medication; fighting dehydration by replenishing electrolytes, fluid, and protein loss with proper nutrition; keeping other infections at bay; and treating vomiting and diarrhea. What your veterinarian will ask you to do depends on the severity of your dog's infection.

Your vet may ask you to hospitalize your dog or keep them at the clinic where they can receive around-the-clock care and treatments.

The majority of dogs that survive the first 3 to 4 days will make a full recovery, a process that may take around a week.

Your veterinarian will help you come up with a plan to get your pup back on their feet and as healthy as possible.

During this time, make sure you take the necessary precautions to protect any other dogs you might have from contracting the virus (especially if they haven't been vaccinated) and ask your vet for advice on how to clean your home and your pup's kennel thoroughly to get rid of any lingering parvovirus.

Treatment for parvovirus can be costly, but pet insurance can help you cover some or most of the costs of veterinary care and treatments.

Prevention

puppy-carried

Prevention is the best way to protect your pup from parvo.

Puppies can be vaccinated against the virus at 6, 8, and 12 weeks of age, along with a booster shot one year after that and every 3 years after that, but won't receive full immunity until they have all their shots. In rare cases, some dogs won't develop immunity and still be susceptible to parvo.

Until your puppy is fully vaccinated, you'll want to avoid going to places where other young dogs may be playing (dog parks, puppy training, kennels, daycare, etc) and keep them away from fecal waste when they go for walks or play outdoors.

If you come into contact with a sick or exposed puppy, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly and change your clothes before you play with your dog.

Want to learn more about how to best care for your puppy? Look to our pet guides here.


What are the signs of parvovirus in dogs?

Symptoms of parvo appear around 3 to 10 days after exposure, and include fever, vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea, and bloody stool.

Is parvo fatal?

Parvo is extremely dangerous and can be fatal. Dogs that are treated have a higher chance of survival and full recovery, especially if they survive the first three to four days.

How do dogs contract parvo?

Parvo is spread through direct contact with other dogs and contact with contaminated environments or feces.

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